RAIL fares expert Barry Doe defends the Virgin Trains East Coast fares increase.
THE RMT union recently issued a vitriolic press release condemning the Virgin Trains East Coast (VTEC) fare rises that take place on September 4. This was picked up by the media, mainly because of their mistaken belief that fares only go up in January.
The union’s motive was merely its dislike of VTEC because it replaced East Coast. Run by Directly Operated Railways, East Coast (EC) had been perceived by the RMT as ‘nationalised’ - hence good.
Well, I’d like British Rail back, but EC fell way short of that and in my view was poorly managed. Anyway, what the RMT ignored was that many VTEC fares didn’t rise at all last January, and when VTEC took over from EC it lowered many fares.
It is therefore timely to look in detail at the recent history. I’ll compare VTEC with Virgin West Coast (VTWC). Manchester and Leeds lend themselves to comparisons because King’s Cross to Leeds is 186 miles while London to Manchester is just under 184 miles via Stoke-on-Trent or 189 miles via Crewe.
In 2010 a Standard Anytime Return from London to Leeds was £223. To Manchester it was £262. By 2012 they were £249 and £296 respectively. Leeds was then held at £249, while by 2015 Manchester had risen to £308.
VTEC took over in March 2015 and in May lowered the Leeds Anytime Return to £224. It was unchanged last January. Meanwhile Manchester is now £332.
September’s tiny fares rise to which the RMT so much objects will take Leeds to £226 - around the level it was six years ago. Manchester used to be 17% dearer than Leeds, whereas now it’s 47% more expensive.
Where VTEC does come off worse than VTWC is with its Off-Peak Returns. The (regulated) OP Return to Manchester - the old Saver - is a very reasonable £82.40. VTEC has
two levels: the regulated Super OP Return at £104.30 and the OP Return at £161.60.
The time restrictions are roughly the same for VTWC’s OP Returns and VTEC’s Super OP Returns, and the reason the Leeds fare is 26% dearer than Manchester’s is not the fault of either operator, but mere history. It reflects the levels at the end of the British Rail era.
Despite the modernisation of the West Coast (as a result of which BR would have had some justifiable real price increases), VTWC has to keep regulated fares at sub-standard levels for evermore!
VTEC’s OP returns are not regulated, being a higher level offering an intermediate fare between the Super OP and the Anytime. Great Western Railway and East Midlands Trains also have these, but VTWC has never introduced them.
With the higher VTEC OP return you can leave London from 0759, and the evening bar is only 1558 to 1745 Monday-Thursday. OP Returns can be used on any evening train on Fridays. However, with VTWC’s OP return you can’t leave London until 0926, and the evening bar is 1501 to 1844 Monday-Friday.
This is what leads to terrible overcrowding on Friday nights at Euston, as people have to wait to 1857 to use an £82.40 OP Return to Manchester - the 1840 would require a £332 Anytime Return!
Yet out of King’s Cross on a Friday evening the £226 Anytime Return is never needed. The £161.60 OP Return applies until the 1803 train (half the peak Manchester fare), and the Super OP £104.30 fare is valid from 1833.
Of course, people might well use a mixture of singles and I am using these as illustrations, but it shows the huge advantages of an intermediate tier of fares.
Incidentally, from September VTEC restrictions are reversible, in that those on the outward leg of a return from London will be the same as for the return leg of one to London.
VTWC has recently said it would like to have airline-style compulsory bookings in the peaks, but admits it wouldn’t be allowed to do so. I’m glad, because that would be totally against the advantage of rail as a walk-on mode.
Is this a reflection on the higher percentage of Virgin ownership on VTWC (with its airline philosophy), as opposed to having far less influence than its 90% Stagecoach-dominated partner on VTEC? Stagecoach certainly has the more adventurous ideas.
All VTWC needs to do is look at other operators - especially its VTEC neighbour - to see how overcrowding can be mitigated by a second tier of off-peak fares, plus some Friday changes.
VTEC’s mistake - as with most operators - is that having achieved the right balance of walkon fares it then floods the system with very cheap advance fares, which lead to overcrowding. But that’s another issue! Virgin Trains East Coast 0752 Aberdeen-King’s Cross passes Hambleton South (Yorkshire) on July 30. VTEC fares will rise on September 4. LES NIXON.
“What the RMT ignored was that many VTEC fares didn’t rise at all last January, and when VTEC took over from EC it lowered many fares.”